In April of 1995 I wrote a paper for a graduate philosophy class at the U of Virginia with professor John Simmons. We were reading Rawls, and the paper was called “Reason and Religion in Rawls.” It’s 17 pages long but makes a simple point that is not specific to Rawls. Recently I found the same point made – the only other time I’ve seen it – in a paper by Stanley Fish in “The Revival of Pragmatism,” edited by Morris Dickstein. The point is that toleration conflicts with religion.
Locke and Mason and Jefferson and others supported freedom of religion with the claim that this would actually be best for religion, not just for humanity (which latter claim I wouldn’t dream of disputing). But it was only better for all the religions but one, all the religions that would not otherwise have been exclusively promoted. It was not best for any particular religion. And the only way to make sense of it is to begin to believe either that one religion is as good as another, or that religion is of relatively little importance; or that we’d be better off without any religion at all, or more than one of these things.
Richard Rorty, like Rawls, believes in a mystical separation of sacred or “private” affairs from worldy or “public” ones, and relegates religion to the former realm. But most religions do not fit that category any better than novels or poetry or anything else does. Rorty has also hinted at a Dewey-like secularizing of religion, to which Fish responds:
“When Richard Rorty wants to de-divinize philosophy, I say go to it – God speed – but when he wants to de-divinize theology, something doesn’t ring true because theology doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing you can de-divinize and still have anything left. As Giles Gunn observes, if you remove from religion ‘the obsession with … ranking and evaluation, … the question becomes whether you are left with anything that can be recognized as … religion'(411). One knows what Rorty has in mind; it is what Locke had in mind when he announces in the first paragraph of the LETTER CONCERNING TOLERATION that the true characteristic of any church is tolerance, and what Mill had in mind when he commends religious sentiments so long as they do not smack of the doctrinal, so long as Christians, for example, take care to be ‘just to infidelity.’ But I confess that I have never been able to understand these assertions, except as a determination to retain the name of something even after you’ve cut its heart out. It’s like HAMLET without the prince or like veggie-burgers. Where’s the beef? Religions are not tolerant.”
Fish goes on to explain that an evangelical who claims to be a pragmatist for purposes of law and poltics is clearly not a a committed believer, but that Vicki Frost is. She is an evangelical who recently sued public schools for teachng her daughter tolerance.
Here’s what I wrote in my paper:
“John Rawls believes that we do, and should, tolerate various religions, while keeping them separate from the state, and that we should do so out of a sense of fairness. I would like to suggest that in so far as these religions are truly religions this cannot be done, and that it is in so far as religions have been watered down and in so far as they have come to adopt certain prudential strategies, that religious conflict has failed to threaten the stability of our nation. Greek gods were given life by Homer, who – as Nietzsche pointed out – could not himself have held much belief in the reality of his creations. Religious toleration was given life by Thomas Jefferson, who ostentatiously placed a “secular temple” at the center of his university, in the place where chapels used to be. Was Jefferson himself religious? To a degree I’m sure he was. I do not wish to suggest that he saw the immediate eradication of religion as impossible and therefore chose to weaken it by separating it from the state while allowing all of its many mutually-contradictory forms a certain measure of legitimacy. I do wish to suggest that had he sought a weakening and eventual elimination of religion he could not have acted better than he did. And I certainly wish to claim that his religion was so weak as to be more than typically incoherent…
…Jefferson made his case for religious freedom saying “It does me no harm for my neighbor to say that there is no god or there are twenty gods.” This is certainly true. But if we stop to think about what it means [when addressed to people who mostly believed in Heaven and Hell], we are left with two possibilities. Either Jefferson was one of the cruelest individuals ever to pollute the surface of the globe, or he did not really believe in Heaven and Hell. For if anyone goes to Hell, the atheist does; and yet Jefferson is indifferent to his fate. “It does ME no harm,” he says. He does not ask what harm it does the atheist….
In this paper I went on to claim that freedom of religion became possible only when religion had been weakened, and to suggest that the first amendment to the US Constitution mentions freedom of religion first because the other freedoms depend on it.
I agree with promoters of religion who claim that our government sometimes treats religion as an unimportant hobby, and that this conflicts with religion’s view of itself. I disagree only over whether this is a good thing.
Subject: Re: toleration
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 22:04:53 -0500
From: David Christopher Swanson
References: 1 , 2
> PF> David Christopher Swanson
> > Religion harms all of us on a daily basis. It supports neglect of the
> > directs attention away from work that is needed, and provides ready
> > for all variety of bigots.
> PF> I guess something like this was the very bleeding edge of progressive
> PF> thinking about a hundred years ago.
> PF> Have you wondered why it so obviously isn’t today?
> Perhaps because it is so vague and incoherent?
What’s incoherent about it? It can easily be made less vague.
> What is this “religion” that is suppsed (by David Swanson) to be doing all
> these things?
There are a lot of them. They all believe in the existence of something
magical outside of human knowledge which humans nonetheless know about or
believe in or are controlled by or are commanded to obey or some combination.
I started this thread when I got interested in S. Fish. I’ve just read “Is
There a Text in this Class?” This intelligent man was obliged to write this
book, and others like it, because English departments are for the most part
theological. There would be no need to spell out such (to some) obvious
observations so tediously were it not for the curse of religion. But
sidetracking the work of tenured scholars into pointless nonsense is not one
of the worst things religion does. It is an example of how pervasive religion
is in our culture. By “religion” I mean what I describe in the second
sentence of this paragraph. No doubt Fish himself has some radically
different definition of it, or imagines that he would if he chose to think of one.
The silliness of pretending that religion is “private” annoys me. This idea
is itself religious in that it imagines a divide between “worldy” or “public”
things and something else. But when people speak out about their religion, I
find it a pointless addition to ideas I agree with, and either a pointless
addition or an undesirable motivation of ideas that I oppose.
I oppose cruelty, vengeance, self-righteousness, obsession with policing sex
and drugs, indifference to want and suffering, oppression of various groups,
and stupid destruction of this planet.
Each of these things is encouraged by religion. Religion is also cited as a
motivation for many things I heartily approve of. But because I approve of
them without religion I can’t understand why others couldn’t just as well do
the same. The things which I cannot find a way to approve of all seem to be
things which I could most easily come to support by somehow managing to
convert to religion. That doesn’t mean that would be the only way to come to
support them, but it would be one way.
I could support certain cruel economic policies which cause outrageous
suffering if I came to believe that people “deserve” what they possess as
“God” has established things. I could hate homosexuals if I came to believe
that they were insulting “God.” I could become vengeful if I ignored the
teachings of our most common religion but chose to associate this behavior
with it, as many of its adherents do. I could become extremely self-righteous
and arrogant, easily beyond Mike Morris’ attainments, if I believed I knew the
“Holy” truth. I could develop a proper fear of sex and drugs if I thought
that “God” didn’t like them. I could allow the destruction of environments
for the profits of a few corporations rather than a few other corporations if
I believed that “God” wanted it that way. Religion is not the only way to
these views, but simply the easiest. It doesn’t require a systematic set of
arguments, but just a list of “divine” decrees. By definition I cannot see
serious arguments in favor of views I oppose, but I can envision leaping to
them by “faith” or willful self-deception.
Someone who supports indifference to the needs of others may not do so for
religious reasons, but if you convince him that his reasons are no good he
will be able to fall back on religion. I want to take away this argument of
> And what work does David Swanson think is needed?
Political and social work to remedy the problems mentioned above. In my own
experience I have seen no evidence that more work is done in this regard by
people motivated by religion.
We have recently seen the spectacle of a government run by a man indifferent
to most of its citizens, working exclusively for those who bribe him, attacked
by those who would have him become even worse, and attacked for sex. During
this performance, the man in question bombed innocent people who had nothing
to do with either his sex life or his enemies or the people whose needs he was
ignoring. And his attackers paused to cheer him for this hideously cruel act,
before resuming their complaints that he was insufficiently evil and that,
moreover, he’d had sex. They even began cannibalizing themselves in their frenzy.
Now, SOMETHING is needed to explain this weirdness. The explanation offered
by most of the actors themselves is that they are following their religion and
that they are going to continue doing so no matter what those of us whom they
are supposed to represent may have to say. I see no reason not to take them
at their word.
It might be argued that greed is a motivation and religion simply a
(transparent) disguise that it wears. But this distinction is of limited
practical import. I don’t think the choice is equal between taking the
cruelty out of religion and taking religion out of te culture in hopes that
the cruelty goes with it. I tend to favor the latter because I don’t know how
to do the former. If Mike Morris tells me that (there is good evidence for
the following view to which he himself does not strictly subscribe although he
deeply respects it) God is against progressive taxation, or someone else tells
me that God doesn’t want any money taken away from the Pentagon, I can make a
contrary assertion, but then what? We’ll have “God” saying two contradictory
things, but how will I ever persuade anybody to choose my “God”? If, on the
other hand, we drop “God,” then I can go on at great length about the benefits
of educating thousands of children as compared with buying, say, a wing for a
Stealth Bomber. I have hope of being persuasive.
DC DJ The Greaseman lost his job for commenting after the playing of a song by
a “black” person: “No wonder people drag them behind trucks.” A Christian
commented: “Wait till he sees who God drags behind his truck.” Here “God” is
serving as a fantasized agent of cruelty which allows one to avoid the
recognition that one is being exactly as despicable as the person towards whom
one’s vengeance is directed. That this common practice exactly opposes the
original teachings of the religion in whose name it speaks is part of the self-deception.